clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Nikki Haley is giving the Republican response to Obama’s State of the Union. Here’s why.

Her handling of the Confederate flag controversy cemented her national reputation.

Alex Wong/Getty Images

Republicans have selected Nikki Haley, currently serving her second term as governor of South Carolina, to deliver their official response to President Obama’s last State of the Union address in office.

The State of the Union response has long served as a national platform to showcase a rising star in the opposition party. During Obama’s time in office, young Republican responders have included Paul Ryan, who is now speaker of the House, and Marco Rubio, a contender for the party’s presidential nomination.

Party elders first noticed Haley when in 2010 she rode a wave of Tea Party popularity past several better-known Republican contenders to the governor’s mansion, becoming the state’s first woman and nonwhite governor. At 43, she is also the nation’s youngest governor.

Her national profile grew dramatically this past summer when, following the mass shooting at a historically black church in Charleston, she shepherded a law through the state legislature to remove the confederate flag from the state capitol, displaying a deft ability to unite both parties on a deeply fractious issue. Since then, her name has been floated as a possible vice presidential pick for the eventual Republican nominee.

She represents a particularly savvy pick because, in recent years, parties have sought to choose responders who conveniently also demonstrate racial and gender diversity in their party.

As an Indian-American woman, Haley lends the GOP a much-needed diverse perspective in a field that’s often perceived as largely white and male.

But demographics alone do not a future national leader make.

Haley has demonstrated appeal with both Tea Partiers and establishment Republicans

Haley, who was elected governor of South Carolina in 2010 at the height of Tea Party influence, has long demonstrated an anti-establishment streak, the ideological flavor du jour with Republican voters.

That tendency stretches far back in her political career. While serving in the South Carolina House of Representatives, Haley forced a fight over the way the chamber recorded votes. She wanted every vote to be on the record, meaning each politician would voice a "yea" or "nay" rather than a simple voice vote.

The move made her deeply unpopular with House Republican colleagues — most politicians dislike on-the-record voting because it provides opponents more fodder to fault their voting records — and party leadership stripped her of a powerful committee assignment.

It was on a record of government accountability that Haley announced her bid for the governor’s mansion in 2010, challenging party bigwigs including a US representative, the state’s lieutenant governor, and the attorney general.

She was polling last among the four Republican candidates until, three weeks before the primary contest, Sarah Palin threw her support behind Haley in a surprise endorsement that boosted her Tea Party credibility.

Palin’s support put Haley over the edge: She won the Republican primary race in a runoff election and went on to beat the Democratic challenger, Vincent Sheheen.

Soon after taking office, Haley signed a bill into law requiring all legislative votes to be on the record, fulfilling a core campaign promise.

Ironically, not long after, she also became the subject of several state ethics inquiries. In one inquiry that went to the state’s Supreme Court, investigators accused her of breaking ethics codes by accepting donations from a payday lending company while sitting on a House committee charged with payday lending reform. She was cleared of wrongdoing, because it is legal in South Carolina to accept donations from companies that have relevant bills pending before the legislature.

Her national image bruised by these and other scandals, Haley focused much of her energy on boosting signature Tea Party issues popular at home. She pushed steep cuts to the state budget and created more charter schools and school vouchers. Her moves to curb regulation and limit lawsuits, in particular, even made her a more popular figure among business-minded establishment Republicans.

She also gained notoriety for outspoken opposition to numerous Obama administration policies — stances that earned her coveted spots on national Sunday talk shows. She refused to expand Medicaid coverage under the Affordable Care Act and signed an Arizona-style immigration law forcing officers to report anyone they discover who might not be an American citizen.

She testified against the National Labor Relations Board at a congressional oversight committee, which had sued Boeing for relocating to South Carolina, a state where employees cannot be compelled to join unions.

And this year, after the shooting in San Bernardino, California, she joined two dozen other governors in declaring that their states would not accept Syrian refugees.

Despite her national appeal, Haley has a strained relationship with Republicans at home

For all that’s been made of Haley’s popularity nationally, the governor has not attempted to make inroads with the different factions of her party in South Carolina – let alone reach out to the opposing party.

Haley has a famously poor relationship with the state legislature, one that began with her accountability fight as a House member and dogged her into her governorship.

Since her first term, the governor has been known to create report cards on lawmakers in the state legislature, documenting whether they voted with her on a broad set of issues.

"Don’t forget their names and let them know you expect them to reverse course," she wrote in a Facebook post accompanying a list of lawmakers with whom she was disappointed. "No excuses."

She also appears unwilling to collaborate with legislators when asked. In one recent example, Haley and the legislature agreed to craft a bill to repair roads in the state after the chair of Michelin North America threatened to halt expansion in the state if they weren’t fixed.

Both parties agreed to address the issue, and the legislature created a special committee that worked with the governor’s office to put together a package. They were all taken aback when, soon after, Haley released her own plan, which tacked on a steep decrease in the state’s income tax, and publicly chastised any lawmaker who refused to back it.

Haley made the fight on the road bill and several other issues her singular focus in a speech to the state Republican Party’s convention in May, calling out the names of a short list of lawmakers who had voted her way on every issue.

It was a state of fraying relations so dire it attracted brief national attention. Less than a year before South Carolina was due to host its early presidential primary contest, critics thought Haley should have taken a more national outlook.

But the tussle was quickly forgotten when in June a white gunman went on a shooting spree at Emanuel AME Church, a historically black church in Charleston, killing nine parishioners — including the church’s senior pastor, state Sen. Clementa C. Pinckney.

Haley's handling of the Confederate flag controversy cemented her national reputation

nikki haley sentences

From left: Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-SC), Gov. Nikki Haley (R-SC), Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC), Rep. and former Gov. Mark Sanford (R-SC), and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC). (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Despite her position as the state’s first minority governor, Haley never displayed an interest in removing the flag from state grounds before the Charleston massacre. In 2014, during a gubernatorial debate, Haley defended the flag against rivals who argued it should be taken down.

"What I can tell you is over the last three and a half years, I spent a lot of my days on the phones with CEOs and recruiting jobs to this state," she said. "I can honestly say I have not had one conversation with a single CEO about the Confederate flag."

But after it came to light that the Charleston shooter was an avowed white supremacist, posing for unsmiling photographs with the rebel flag, Haley publicly changed her mind.

Her sudden turnabout demonstrated the political potency of the events in Charleston, a racial event so powerful it provided a once-unthinkable opening to discuss the flag as a racist symbol. But it also showed Haley’s political savvy, in facing national calls to remove the flag and understanding the repercussions of inaction, to overcome elements in her own party that viewed the flag issue as a sideshow.

Indeed, a bill to remove the flag from the state’s capitol stalled in the state legislature for several weeks, with opponents offering extraneous amendments to slow its progress from one chamber to the next and finally to the governor’s desk. But the bill ultimately passed both the Senate and House with huge majorities in favor, and on July 9 Haley signed a bill to take down the flag.

"Now there's more reason to come to this state," Haley told CNN after the signing ceremony. "I am proud to say that it's a new day in South Carolina."

By becoming the face of the flag’s removal, Haley enjoyed a level of national praise – from Republicans and Democrats alike – that she had not seen since first winning office in 2010. She’s also shored up popularity in the state with more than half of the state’s voters approving of the job she’s doing. Though her five intervening years were colored by disagreement and controversy, her unwavering leadership following the massacre in Charleston eclipsed any earlier shortcomings.

Her initiative helped not only her own image but that of her entire party, which is likely why Republican leaders want her to become its newest face.